Papua New Guinea – People and place

Plymouth’s collections in context

At the time when most of the Museum’s collections were made, Papua New Guinea (PNG) was a part of the British Empire, known then as British New Guinea (BNG). During the nineteenth century, a great many Christian missionaries travelled from Europe to PNG. Plymouth’s most prolific collector of PNG material, the Reverend Harry Moore Dauncey, was just one of them. Missionaries were often the first Europeans to settle into local communities for long periods of time. The image below shows the village of Delena where Dauncey worked, seen from the mission house.

Black and white photo of Delena, seen from Dauncey's window

Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RA 34343)


preaching from a ship, New Guinea

Council for World Mission/SOAS Library (CWM/LMS/Home/Photographs/Box 2 – card 15)

By the time that Dauncey arrived in PNG, European rule was already well established.

As part of the process of converting local people to Christianity, missionaries often confiscated or encouraged locals to give up important spiritual objects. Many of these objects are now in European museum collections.

The image to the right shows missionaries ‘preaching from a ship’ at Waga Waga in Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea – people and place

Black and white photo of two men preparing sago

Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 34398)

New Guinea is an island in Melanesia, between Southeast Asia and Northern Australia. New Guinea now consists of the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua in the West, and Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the East. More than seven million people live in PNG, speaking about 700 distinct languages and a with great diversity of local customs and traditions. Most PNG people today live in rural areas and practice subsistence-based agriculture. However, mining for metals and ores is an important industry, and more than 300,000 people live in PNG’s capital city, Port Moresby.

People have lived in New Guinea for over 50,000 years. The climate is tropical and the landscape is varied, with a high spine of mountains along the centre of the island and lowlands round the coast. The Fly River originates in the mountains and enters the sea in the Papuan Gulf – the region where Dauncey lived, worked and collected. Crops (including sugar cane, yams and bananas), were first grown and harvested in the highlands at least 9,000 years ago, making this one of the earliest agricultural areas in the world. Pottery, pigs and new fishing techniques arrived in about 500 BCE and sweet potatoes were introduced in the 1700s, leading to increased population density. The photograph above, from Dauncey’s collection, shows two men preparing sago, one of PNG’s staple foods.

Black and white photo of raising the British flag

Council for World Mission/SOAS Library (CMW/LMS/Papua New Guinea/Photographs/, Box 9 File 16/4)

The first European (Dutch) settlers arrived in 1828 and took control of the western half of the island. In 1962 this became an Indonesian province known as West Papua. The eastern half of the island was divided between Britain and Germany in 1884. The photograph to the right, from Dauncey’s collection, shows the raising of a British flag – perhaps in Delena – to mark the proclamation of the British New Guinea protectorate in 1884. The local chiefs are seated on the ground to the right, while the British colonial officers are standing, wearing white.

Australia took over the southern section (Papua) from Britain in 1907 and the northern section from Germany in 1914. It was administered by the League of Nations and then the United nations until gained its independence as Papua New Guinea in 1975. PNG remains part of the British Commonwealth. In a 2000 census, 96% of Papua New Guineans identified themselves as Christian, although many people today combine Christianity with traditional beliefs and ways of life.